Strip Search Byte: Opening the (Social PR) Business Kimono on Your Terms

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The age of radical openness for social business

Recently I woke up to a CBC Radio conversation between Fresh Air’s host Mary Ito and futurist and author Don Tapscott.

Tapscott was detailing his long-held beliefs on the benefits of “radical openness” for social business, referring to it as “undressing in public” or “opening the kimono.” He indicated how it was to the benefit of organizations to do this willingly (i.e., the why and what strategically), as it allowed for a movement to greater openness and collaboration, rather than proprietary intellectual property and turf wars. By that he meant that consumers and other stakeholders could form relationships and make purchase decisions based on a more-educated understanding of the company’s culture and values, treatment of employees and ongoing operations/relationships, etc. (I’m paraphrasing here, based on my admittedly sleepy recollection—I noticed the 14+-minute segment is available online, but have not re-listened prior to writing this.)

His underlying presupposition was that if businesses didn’t undress willingly, likely it would be done for them, probably by activists or less-than-friendly social media denizens. In particular, this seems to happen during a perceived crisis.

It’s best to open your kimono as a deliberate process

Marketing and advertising have always been externally facing functions and beyond creative and promotional flourishes, relatively naked. Other areas, such as public relations/corporate communication and sales, traditionally were more of a mix of what is visible and what is done “under cover” or more one-to-one overtly—not to be confused with covertly. Think of it like buying a home or planning a wedding: even if the end result will be evident, not every warty detail and relationship wrinkle needs to be stripped bare for all.

When being deliberate in undressing in public, from a social PR perspective, think of it as making evident the things that matter to an organization beyond selling products or services.

Where an enforced strip-search idea does—and doesn’t—have merit

When something is done for the greater good of society—e.g., uncovering things such as financial malfeasance, public safety or environmental concerns—such organizational reputation ripping is understandable. Even in less egregious incidents, as the Masters of Disaster state: “It’s not [so much] the crime, it’s the cover up.” Meaning external scrutiny, including in social media, is valid.

Less palatable and noble is when agencies/organizations and individuals—directly or by inference—shred reputations (bare) online as a strategy to attract business and speaking/writing opportunities for themselves.

In the “public relations” arena, I’ve noticed an “up tick” in social excoriation by segments of the digitally active, aimed squarely at the qualifications and social experience of the in-house PR lead and communication team, particularly in regards to issues and reputation management (i.e., crisis communication and damage control). Yet many lack similar senior-level, in-house PR role experience and/or their primary area of consulting experience seems to be consumer products- or service-based marketing.

Generally the premise and promise is:

If you hired us/me, you would not—at present or in future—have these problems or social media miscues and suffer long-term reputation and *financial repercussions.

*Despite the claims of many, I await proper analysis and proof of the typical social media crisis resulting in long-term financial and reputation impact on an organization. If there are financial repercussions, usually they relate to an outdated or failing business model or more serious organizational problems.

Certainly your organization can partner with outsider experts for campaigns and specific issues (e.g., government lobbying), but in the day-to-day undressing, for most companies insourcing remains the most feasible and effective, because what’s underneath the kimono is better understood, including the value in revealing. Plus there tends to be less movement of senior practitioners who work in-house, versus agency contracts and staff.

In-house examination and criticism tends to be self-directed, rather than strip-searching others

Compare and contrast something like a company blog, LinkedIn, Facebook or Google+ account addressing an incident to that of external ones, where some use their social-media script properties as a sword in attacking.

Have you ever seen a company post that assaults another organization or individual, other than in defence? Organizations can use radical openness to undress themselves, but it’s the rare company that strip-searches another—especially a competitor—in a public forum. The same holds true when PR representatives are quoted in traditional media.

Besides social media properties being used to strip-search non-client or partner companies, what saddens me even more is when other self-identified “communicators” happily join as a mob of sweeping judgments, speculations and negativity.

Remember, those who think outside the filter bubble of prescriptives are either constrained by their organizational, professional and personal obligation to be circumspect regarding the reputation of others or are cognizant of the confirmation-bias aspect of the conversations.

Other in-house practitioners are too busy focusing on their own roles and responsibilities and business objectives to participate in the latest social business pile-on fest….

Recently, in two separate LinkedIn Groups, I took an opposing point of view to the inaugural normative/agreeing comments about two blog posts by individuals positioning themselves as authorities. I basically invited others who were less convinced about sweeping assertions to chime in. It was gratifying to see thoughtful contributions and debate from both sides of each issue as an outcome. Often the forum in which a discussion takes place is just as important as the issue being discussed, so choose where to undress your company, (personal opinions) or others, wisely.

Watching your in-house (bare) back

When I accepted Neal Schaffer’s invitation to contribute a social public relations column more than 1.5 years ago, we agreed at the onset my primary focus would be on the role and responsibilities of the lead in-house PR or corporate communication practitioner, primarily in medium- to larger-sized businesses and organizations. My ideal reader is looking to explore the power and possibilities of becoming more socially open in the kimono business. From the first column I established the three cornerstones of reputation, value and relationship building. And this focus is based on my own experience, both in past employment roles and more recent participation and explorations in the social PR sphere.

I have a global community of colleagues, acquaintances and friends employed in-house in a variety of communication roles, as well as agency and self-employed consultants.

Many have either learned to social fish or are helping teach others how to social fish for the long term.

I learn a lot from both groups. I sometimes share their best practices and thinking I’ve observed and absorbed, here in this column.

In regard to the second grouping of my valued relationships, they do not impale and gut other companies, in a shark-attack (i.e., strip-search) mode.

That’s because the bigger and/or more-established agencies or experienced consultants know that any short-term business gains in reputation-and-value attacking are offset by a longer-term character and SEO footprints of negativity. (The 6 A.M. blog of the CEO of the world’s largest independent PR agency is much-respected and read. Note that Richard Edelman never attacks organizations, other agencies or non-public-figure individuals.)

And this type of behaviour has zero to do with the desired skill set and experience proposed by the Global Alliance in its approved 2012 Melbourne Mandate. For example, check out the mandate’s Principles:

Defining an organization’s character and values

The communicative organization has a clear sense of its core or “DNA,” which consists of three strands:                        

1. Values: the set of values the organization lives by and which guides its decisions and behaviour.                        

2. Leadership: the responsibility of leaders to model the character and values of the organization and beliefs on how it should operate, through decisions taken and the direction they set.                        

3. Culture: the processes, structures, collective behaviour and ways of working that are part of organizational life. These things affect the way people and groups interact with each other internally and with external stakeholders.

I recommend these principles serve as a framework in your social PR kimono-opening approach. And if you are of the opinion that this has nothing to do with “PR” as you know and practise it, you might also want to check out “Brand publicity and strategic communications are two different professions,” written by Bournemouth University’s Professor Tom Watson.

A recent assessment of in-house social PR success

Here’s an example of how my assessment of the in-house PR practitioner counsel and performance sometimes goes against conventional (social PR) wisdom. Unlike much of the online chatter and negativity, I think Applebee’s Restaurant successfully won the war of the news story—”and the war of the news story is won by rebuilding trust.” (Per Extraction Byte.)

What was done correctly was to refuse to tar-and-feather or excoriate a patron of the restaurant—no matter what her personal opinions about mandated group tipping—or to reinstate the wait-staff employee (not even the server to whom the note was directed) who took it upon herself to be an unofficial activist and spokesperson for the company in social media. In the hospitality industry, company values must protect customers and other stakeholders to retain trust and help ensure future patronage.

Yes, there were hiccups. But I think the main error was (likely more-junior representatives who “cared”) in the early stages responding to individual negative comments on Facebook from non-core audiences or stakeholders, rather than simply providing information updates. There are accusations of comments being deleted, but I’ve found in most cases it’s not so much that the comments were deleted but that there are so many of them they often appear hidden. (The haters do love to make Facebook comments in droves.)

Time will tell whether Applebee’s public relations decisions and actions (both online and traditional)—and my assessment—prove correct and/or are viewed as a positive or negative case study in social media.

My suggestions for kimono-opening resources

Here are some of my suggestions if seeking information or counsel in strategically “undressing” your social PR efforts:

  • Seek out social properties of organizations that have fully embraced opening the kimono, including making public how they do it. On a global basis, companies like IBM, Starbucks and Virgin come to mind—and for different reasons.
  • In concert with those companies, determine whether agency partnership(s) are also acknowledged, including the exact role (i.e., strategy and content or hands-on tactical) and how long the relationship has been in place. Is the agency teaching the company how to social PR fish or is it doing the majority of tactical fishing?
  • Find online-and-open publications of public relations associations from different parts of the world. You will find most of the articles focus on the positive or provide thoughtful advice on strategic, integrated communication plans that include social. Also check out the marketing association sites, particularly if they have a public-relations dedicated area. The two areas can complement one another, working in concert to undress in public.
  • When it comes to for-profit (online or print) industry publications, examine the content, tone and experience (type and level) of the writers. Is the focus on company-contributed case studies or is there a preponderance of negative points of view, written by non-involved “experts” who get paid in attention rather than monies? What percentage of articles are written by journalists who display a decent understanding of the industry and show some objectivity both in terms of content and focus? Some of my favourite PR online resources include The Holmes Report, CommPROBiz, PR, the Institute for Public Relations and the Arthur Page Society.)
  • Attend PR conferences and workshops where the majority of speakers on social PR and “opening the kimono” are either speaking on behalf of their companies or have direct consultancy experience regarding strategy and content (beyond marketing campaigns) for medium- to larger-sized businesses and organizations.
  • Regarding specialized or boutique-agency blogs and other social media properties—and there are a lot of great ones—are areas covered, the case studies examined and the tone more positive than negative? Is the assessment thoughtful and measured (based on organizational objectives and principles) and past and current business experience? Posts should not smack the slightest of a fishing expedition for business. I like to think that’s what we, as a collective of regular contributors, are doing on Windmill Networking. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t continue to contribute.

These are examples of organizations and practitioners that I think are best-suited to help the in-house practitioner to open the social PR business kimono on his or her terms, rather than have it ripped off.

What social PR positive resources do you recommend I check out?

Before you answer, if you’ve been fascinated by properties and conversations that have a tendency to focus on the negative, here’s a thought:

How would you feel if that person/company was attacking your social business and demanding a strip search?

Judy Gombita
This monthly Social Media and Public Relations column is contributed by Judy Gombita. Judy is a Toronto-based public relations and communication management specialist, with more than 20 years of employment and executive-level volunteer board experience, primarily in the financial and lifelong learning nonprofit sectors. She is the co-editor and Canadian contributor (since 2007) to the international, collaborative blog, PR Conversations. +Judy Gombita
Judy Gombita


Sr/hybrid (social) public relations & communication management strategist. Mindful curation @PRConversations. Heart: travel, film, theatre, opera, books & food.
Drought, urbanization & climate: big biz opps for long-term #sustainability @lindsclint & @EarthofFoxes in @guardian - 6 hours ago
Judy Gombita
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  1. says

    Hello Judy – congratulations on writing another bodacious (and no, don’t think of bodices) post. Companies (and leadership) will gain much by practicing transparency and I liked the way you shared the “why” and “how” they can.
    Thanks for citing Virgin as a reference – they are also a great example of a company that follows the “outside-in” approach for process improvement and growth and apply the same principle in their social PR too, I guess.

  2. says

    Thank you for your ongoing support.

    Thanks also for sharing that “operations” and “process improvement/growth” end of things information about Virgin, Suchitra. I was actually thinking of Virgin in terms of a company and culture that was very much built in the model of its founder, Richard Branson.

    I was watching a TV interview that included Richard Branson and his daughter, Holly. They talked about his struggles with dyslexia, his ability to work hard and take chances, his recognition that family and “giving back” to the world is more important than vast accumulation of riches, etc. There are now about 400 different companies in the Virgin Group, and what I find fascinating is how the joie de vivre of Sir Richard comes across, not only in the promotions and launches, but in the “personality” of the bricks-and-mortar businesses and employees that work there.

    I didn’t choose Virgin because of it, but were you aware that Neal Schaffer and I met (in real life) as a result of one of the very first Klout promotions, with Virgin Airlines? We were both offered that Perk, and Neal took advantage of his to travel (round trip) from LA to Toronto.

    The rest is social media history. :-).

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